I am frequently asked what the secret is to running faster. Unfortunately it is a question to which there is no easy answer, and if there was then far more of us would be running PB’s or even breaking world records. Of course it also depends over what distance there is a desire to “run faster” – the speed and speed endurance that is required to run a sub-3 hour marathon is very different to the speed that is needed to run a 100m in 10 seconds.
The harsh fact is that if you want to be really fast over either short or long distances, then you do need to have chosen your parents carefully. Olympic and World champions invariably have a genetic pre-disposition that enables them to perform at the highest level, which will almost certainly include a preponderance of either fast twitch muscle fibres (for sprinters), or slow twitch muscle fibres (for endurance). That’s not to say that you cannot be a good marathon runner or a sprinter without a high proportion of the relevant muscle fibre type – it is just that you may not become an Olympic Champion.
Training: Key to Become Faster
But for both elite and non-elite athletes, training is the key to unlocking potential and to becoming “faster”. At its most basic level, running speed is a direct function of stride length, and stride rate, and an increase in either of these variables will lead to an increase in running speed. The great Usain Bolt was uniquely able to combine an enormous stride length of almost 3 metres with a high stride rate that propelled him to speeds of over 40 kilometres an hour. Today’s elite marathon runners run at over 20 kilometres an hour – much slower than Bolt, but still faster than most of us can sprint, and of course this pace is sustained for around 2 hours.
Avoid too much Muscle
For sprinters, the focus on improving speed is often based on training to increase leg power, which it is hoped will result in gains in muscle and longer, faster strides. The challenge faced by athletes and coaches is to avoid building up too much muscle, which can reduce flexibility and decrease stride length. Furthermore the additional weight from extra muscle places higher energy demands on the body, potentially having the reverse effect to the one that is desired, slowing a runner down, not enabling them to run faster. Today, many sprinters are moving away from the recent trend to gain muscle bulk, and reverting back to a more “traditional” physique with less muscle and a faster stride rate.
Running Fast means More Energy
Running fast requires more energy, and it is the inability to match the rate of energy demanded by the body with the rate of energy that can be produced within the muscles, that causes fatigue. If this were not the case, then the world’s fastest sprinters would also be the world’s fastest marathon runners! So the key for endurance runners who are aiming to run faster is to develop “speed endurance” - the ability to sustain a fast pace for a prolonged period of time. From a physiological perspective, this can involve development of oxygen uptake capacity, so that the rate of energy supply within the muscles is increased, and the ability to cope with lactic acid, which is a by-product of fast running that is known to cause fatigue. Scientists know that runners fatigue when they are using a high proportion of their maximum oxygen uptake value, so increasing this value, and improving running efficiency so that each stride uses less energy, can help to improve speed and speed endurance.
So whilst we may not all be able to run fast enough to stand on the Olympic podium, there is still scope for every runner to improve their ability to run fast, or to run faster for longer. Training is the key, matched with realistic goals and an acceptance that breaking 10 seconds for 100m, or 2 hours for a marathon, may be one or two (very fast!) steps too far.
See also our February blog: "How to embrace breathlessness when running"